by Tim Ellis

QUEENS College student Tim Ellis has just returned from Ghana, volunteering on a programme run by VSO and British Council called “Global Xchange”. Here he outlines his trip and what he has done.

It runs for six months and teams up nine UK volunteers with nine volunteers from countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and in my case, Ghana. The group of 18 then go to a community in each exchange country for three months where they live in a host family in counterpart pairs (one British volunteer and one volunteer from the exchange country), work in the community around a theme such as HIV/AIDS and make a positive impact through volunteering and culture sharing.

Going to Southwark was just as much of a culture shock as going to Ghana. On the first day there, as I walked down Peckham Rye High street with Ben, my Ghanaian counterpart pair, I could have mistakenly thought I was in Africa already, save for the freezing weather and McDonalds. Ben was amazed to see all the food that he thought he was going to miss in Britain on sale and pointed out Plantain and Cassava to me, things I'd never even heard of! Living in London was quite different to the little village in Staffordshire where I grew up and then Palma, a city about ten times smaller than London.

The theme of our programme was “Enhancing basic education and livelihood options” and we all worked in different organisations that linked to this theme. I volunteered in Cambridge House, a community organisation that provides a free advocacy service for disadvantaged members of the community as well as providing help to people that don't know their way around the British system of benefits, health care, or find it difficult to access local services.

The Ghana phase started in December and we went to a fishing town called Elmina on the South Coast of West Africa, to work in local schools. There is a big problem of getting children into schools in the town, many preferring to get jobs on the fishing boats or having to help their parents by working.

The school I worked in was called Akotobinsin Primary Methodist School, the first state school in the whole of Ghana, but one which faced the same problems as all the other schools - oversized classes, severe lack of teaching materials, underpaid teachers and a complete lack of support from the local authorities. I taught the 11 and 12 year olds in Class six which had over 70 pupils, all taught together in one class.

We organised a festival in the town to promote education, getting the school children from our various placements to make presentations, something they're rarely given the chance to do.

Whilst Ghana is one of the fastest developing countries in West Africa and one of the most politically stable, it is by no-means free from problems. Poverty in Elmina was everywhere. Sitting behind a stall selling oranges for 14 hours a day, seven days a week just to survive is common, as is seeing school children going straight home to sell for 6 hours after school closes. The state school system only spends about the equivalent of 2 euros per child, each year. Something that was quite hard to stomach, especially when a fleet of over 30, brand-new, Range Rovers carrying the newly elected leader of the ruling party drove through the town.

It was an experience I will never forget, and despite all the times where I wanted to get on the first plane home, I am glad I experienced everything. And knowing we left having made a positive impact on the community and the schools in which we worked made it all so much better - I would recommend it to anyone!